Originally created 09/22/05

Frog art survives statute



ATHENS, Ga. - The county attorney this week dropped charges against a downtown store owner who was cited in July for violating the county's sidewalk sign ordinance with a frog sculpture, but local officials say they'll continue to enforce the ban.

At Athena Jewelers, formerly The Art of It All, the well-known frog statue "Francois" was decked out in a sparkly, celebratory outfit after County Attorney Bill Berryman declined to prosecute a July citation for a violation of county ordinances banning signs from sidewalks.

"After talking with the (code enforcement) officers, we felt she'd come into compliance," Mr. Berryman said.

When officers checked on Francois again - after citing Athena Jewelers owner Danna Lea in July - the 14-year-old steel statue was safely within a small diagonal alcove in front of Ms. Lea's store, which Mr. Berryman said is considered private property and not subject to the law.

Ms. Lea was scheduled for trial today in Athens-Clarke Municipal Court. Violating the sign ordinance carries a fine of up to $1,000.

No other sign ordinance cases were on the court's calendar as of Tuesday.

The county's code enforcement arm, the Community Protection Division, began handing out warnings about the sign ordinance and a related merchandise display ordinance in July, a month after Athens-Clarke County commissioners could not reach a compromise on the issue and decided to limit merchandise displays on sidewalks while beginning to enforce a previously neglected total ban on sidewalk signs already on the books.

Several downtown businesses received warnings, including Adams Optics, Gandolfo's New York Delicatessen and Fortson's Clothiers, but most businesses complied with the law by removing their signs from sidewalks.

Community Protection Division officials would not say Tuesday how many business owners have been cited under the law without a formal open records request.

Had Ms. Lea gone to court, she would have challenged the ordinance by saying that it violated her First Amendment right to freedom of expression and the 14th Amendment's equal protection clause because the Junior League's bulldog statues are still allowed on sidewalks, said John Knight, who is Ms. Lea's attorney.

"It's the freedom of expression," Ms. Lea said.

"I'm expressing myself through art, and it's going to be on the public sidewalks."

Athens-Clarke County Mayor Heidi Davison said she is confident the ordinance could withstand a court's scrutiny.